Arizona Teachers Wait Tables to Pay Bills. Now They Might Strike.

The Republican-majority Arizona legislature has approved $4.6 billion in cuts to public school funding since 2009.

[Photo: Teachers wearing red and holding up signs protest outside of schools during a teacher's strike]
Donning red T-shirts in a #RedforEd campaign, Arizona teachers on Wednesday will march again on the state capitol and in other cities across the state. CBS This Morning / YouTube

Monica Kennedy commutes an hour and a half each day because she can’t afford to live in Chandler, Arizona, where she teaches gifted sixth-graders.

She said she loves her job, but the pay doesn’t leave much of a cushion for emergencies. The 20-year teaching veteran said most of her single coworkers have side jobs. One works at Chili’s. Others have quit.

“Two left to become nurses. One moved to New York for higher pay,” said Kennedy, a representative with Arizona Educators United, a labor union.

Dwindling pay and tough working conditions could soon drive Arizona teachers to walk off the job.

Last week, a teacher sick-out closed nine schools in the Phoenix area. Donning red T-shirts in a #RedforEd campaign, Arizona teachers on Wednesday will march again on the state capitol and in other cities across the state. The Arizona Education Association, the state teachers union, said in a Facebook post that it would announce its demands then.

Arizona teachers need only look to West Virginia for a ready template to secure higher pay. West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent wage hike after a nine-day strike this month. Meanwhile, Oklahoma teachers are contemplating a strike.

Gary DeGrow, who teaches science and coaches soccer at Perry High School in Gilbert, said Arizona is operating on a surplus, and a voter-approved state minimum wage hike will put more money in workers’ pockets, but educators are being left behind.

“We basically feel like beggars right now at the state capitol because we have to beg and plead for a livable wage,” he said.

Arizona is ranked among the nation’s worst in per-student spending. A 2017 report by the state auditor found teachers’ pay is shrinking as their class sizes are growing. The state receives a larger share of federal education dollars than the national average, but spends less of it in the classroom, the report found.

“We’re being squeezed to the point where something’s got to give,” said DeGrow, a union representative. He said he and his wife would like to have a second child, but can’t afford to.

Policy experts blame state tax cuts for Arizona’s dismal funding of education, as is the case in other states where educators have seen their pay stagnate or decrease. The Republican-led legislature has approved $4.6 billion in cuts to public school funding since 2009, according to the Arizona School Boards Association. Arizona lawmakers slashed corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, and cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported.

The Arizona governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. This week, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed legislation extending a six-tenths of a cent sales tax for school funding. But the law doesn’t increase the amount of money going to schools, as the Arizona Republic reported. In announcing his 2019 budget, Ducey promised $100 million in permanent and immediate school funding.

Teachers said their profession used to deliver a degree of financial certainty. Kennedy said teachers could once count on additional pay for earning a master’s degree or for serving for more years on the job, through something known as salary schedules—but that hasn’t been true for years.

“You knew you’d move up the ladder in pay,” she explained. “Now you don’t even know how much you’re going to make.”

She said Arizona is a right-to-work state and local unions wield less power than their East Coast counterparts.

DeGrow said he hears lawmakers say they support education, but he feels like there’s a disconnect between the state legislature and schools. He wants state lawmakers to visit local classrooms to understand the conditions for students, teachers, and staff.

“Pick the ones that are Title I, pick the ones that are struggling, and listen to what the staff have to say,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Monica Kennedy as a member of the Chandler Education Association.